(ARC Music, 2013)
I have a personal history with Clannad, the Grammy-winning Irish folk/New Age group. Although that history isn’t quite as long as Clannad’s own – they’ve been around for forty years! Nádúr is their eighteenth album! – it does date back to my junior high days, when “Theme from Harry’s Game” was popular enough to cut through whatever I was listening to then (and I was pretty much transitioning from hair bands to Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Public Image Ltd. and Fishbone, to recall a few bands that popped up on tapes at the time). It was a gorgeous song, ethereal, otherworldly, and its placement in the Harrison Ford movie Patriot Games helped, because that was one of the few R-rated movies I’d seen then. (Forget that it was originally released in 1982 on the Magical Ring album – it took ten years for it to achieve pop culture status.) It gave the song a cache. Plus, my mom liked it, so that was a plus – there was no hollering about turning down my garbage music when Clanand was on. Thus Anam and Banba made their way into my collection at some point in high school.
And thus I forgot about them for a long time. But here I am, revisiting the group on the eve of their release of Nádúr, and yep, I wasn’t kidding when I said it was their eighteenth album. That’s a lot of albums. A looooot of music. What I tend to forget is that Clannad is a “family band,” kind of like an Irish Partridge Family (oh god, I’m so sorry for that, it just came out), and so they’re not necessarily subject to the intra-band strife that hits, say, groups like Guns ’N’ Roses. Indeed, Clannad is made up of three siblings – Moya, Ciarán, and Pól Brennan (and this is Pól’s first appearance with the group since 1989) – and their twin uncles Noel and Pádraig Duggan. (Sister Enya was once in the group, but she struck out on her own with, shall we say, some success.)
You should know what Clannad sounds like just by reading their name. And it is unsurprising to hear what they sound like in 2013, fifteen years after their last last studio album, 1998’s Landmarks. What may be surprising is that they sound refreshed, vital, and, let’s face it, gorgeous. And yeah, it’s impossible for me to get into Clannad’s influence on its home country or how they’re perceived there, so you’ve got my response, and that’s pretty much it. It’ll have to do.
And as lush as it sounds, I can’t help but feeling torn a bit when it comes to a critical appreciation. Where it succeeds, as it does especially in “Rhapsody na gCrann,” it recalls the wild innocence of rural Ireland, and since I’ve never been to Ireland (save a layover in the Dublin airport on my way to London), I’m going to go with perhaps the most obvious place my imagination whisks me off to while listening: Tolkien’s Shire. There’s a sense of country complacency in the acoustic tones and the Renaissance Faire flutes, a contentment, but it’s a contentment clouded at the periphery by a hint of melancholy, that something’s not quite right. This is exactly the feel Tolkien exhibits, with his Shire representing the last vestiges of rural life and the machinations of the East threatening that tranquility in an allegory of industrialization. Clannad, while obviously not treading that path, still wonders of days gone by and evokes a passionate nostalgia of simpler times.
The traditional Celtic lends itself to these wanderings of imagination, and gentle ballads such as “Lamh ar Lamh” and “Cití na gCumann” do little to dissuade me from dreaming of green fields and country lanes. And this is not helped by the Lord of the Rings films themselves – Howard Shore’s score is chock full of references to this music, and of course it fits gloriously. I even had to double check whether or not Clannad actually performed on one of the three films’ soundtracks, but again, it was that Enya who actually appeared, on Fellowship of the Ring. I should not be blamed for the double take.
The relative failure of an album like Nádúr is that it’s hard to present in a setting far removed from its New Age-y commercialization. There’s very little distance from the album to those light, balsa-wood stands in nature stores at the mall, piping soothing “world” music and hawking Pure Moods-lite collections from studio lutists and pan-flutists. (Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that “nádúr” is Gaelic for “nature.”) Those targeted toward boomers who haven’t actually traveled very much (and if they have, it’s been in guided tour groups), but who want to be considered knowledgable and worldly, to somehow trick their neighbors and friends (or to soundtrack their latest bubble bath). Songs like the over-emoted “Brave Enough,” perhaps, or “The Fishing Blues” which follows it, land more in this territory.
That’s hardly Clannad’s fault, though, and after the incredible length of their career as recording artists, I don’t blame them for such a remarkably polished studio sheen – the record sounds as if it was truly lovingly crafted and recorded by the group. And it’s also clear that there’s a real joy these siblings and uncles have in making music together, which they’ve done since they were children at their father Leo’s tavern in County Donegal. Further, there’s a true sense of place permeating the tunes, and though Middle Earth is where it takes me, mainly because of my overfamiliarity with the fictitious locale, Nádúr is fully, unabashedly, and remarkably Irish in its history and execution. And even though I’m probably going to reach for Anam if it ever comes down to it, Clannad, in their reformation and renaissance, has allowed me to indulge in my own nostalgia, and for that I’m grateful.
RIYL: Enya, Pure Moods, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores